Posted by: nicolalg | January 18, 2013

South Africa, first impressions

By Lisa Harrison and Nicola Greenberg

Perhaps it is about time to introduce ourselves, given we have been in South Africa for almost two weeks now, acquainting ourselves with the scenery, history and diversity of cultures here. We, Nicola and Lisa, are in a unique situation amongst the Castan Centre interns as there are two of us placed together at Lawyers for Human Rights in Durban, South Africa. Not only that, but our internship also forms part of a broader Monash University-Oxfam Australia partnership that for the last five years has sent a small group of volunteers to work with Oxfam’s local partner NGOs in Durban.

We’ve thought about whether to use this blog post to sell the (many) amazing aspects of this program, or to provide a ‘warts and all’ view of our internship. In the end, authenticity wins out, so in the interests of future applicants to the program here is our complete South African experience thus far.

The link with the Monash Oxfam Partnership means we are connected with 8 other volunteer interns (5 from Monash Melbourne, and 3 from Monash South Africa) and participate in Oxfam-run inductions and de-briefs. This has been a brilliant aspect of the internship program. Firstly, we’re living with an insta-family, which provides both a great group of travel buddies, and individuals undergoing similar internships to share and debrief with at the end of the day.As a result of living in a community we have the ‘safety in numbers’ security to explore and make friends, a huge perk of which was obtaining (read forcibly demanding) an invite to a Zulu wedding this past weekend, which was an absolute highlight of our time in South Africa so far.

Nicola with the groom's niece, Gugu

Nicola with the groom’s niece, Gugu

Lisa with the bride

Lisa with the bride

The second aspect of the Oxfam program is the inclusion of a one-week induction and welcome to country. We began in Soweto, Johannesburg, gaining an understanding of the very recent scars of apartheid on the face of our new country, followed by information sessions at Monash South Africa. Upon arrival in Durban we continued our induction with information sessions on HIV/AIDs, the impact of colonisation and apartheid, community development theory and practice, and the vast environmental degradation and impacts big industries (which have dislocated and/or polluted local communities). Importantly, we also had a chance to reflect on and challenge our personal ‘white person coming to save the world’ biases. A final highlight was our Zulu lesson, conducted half in a swimming pool during a particularly hot day.

isiZulu in the pool

isiZulu in the pool

We commenced work on the Monday of our second week in South Africa. The Durban office of Lawyers for Human Rights is a refugee legal clinic, the vast majority of counsel provided relates to applications for refugee status and citizenship. Refugees who attend LHR are primarily those who’ve either had their initial application for refugee status rejected, or have encountered a similar hurdles or issues with their status, as the initial application for refugee status is mostly carried out without legal assistance.  The reality of working at LHR is an interesting balance between hands on work with clients, and periods with more admin tasks and waiting.

Working with clients who seek asylum from countries such as Somalia, DRC and Burundi is an intense, challenging and rewarding experience. We are learning how to focus on facts,credibility and whether a client has a claim when listening to what can be heartbreaking stories during interviews. Hand in hand with intense client work is the waiting game, whether it be waiting on/harassing Homeland Affairs for claim updates, waiting for an interpreter or a client to arrive, or simply waiting for your computer to start working again.

Both of us are incredibly grateful for the opportunity to experience all facets of life at LHR and the Oxfam South Africa experience in general, and look forward to contrasting our initial observations with a later blogpost.

Sala Kahle

(stay well)

Nicola Greenberg and Lisa Harrison


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